This is a short story that appeared in my 1996 book Lighthouse Victuals & Verse. The book has been out of print for years, and there are no plans to exhume it from publishing purgatory, so I'm sharing a few items from it. The first item below is a short story from 1992, back when I was neck-deep in research for Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers. I collected many interviews with old-time lightkeepers who had served in the 1920s and 1930s, right before the Coast Guard assumed control of lighthouses. Some of their stories were haunting reminders of lost days.
The theme of this story is the automation of lighthouses. It began in the early twentieth century with gadgets like sun valves and gas lights. By the 1960s when LAMP (Lighthouse Automation & Modernization Program) was launched, it became a necessary goal for the Coast Guard. Staffing of lighthouses was expensive and took personnel away from other, more urgent parts of the total Coast Guard mission.
But automation, as those of us who love lighthouse know so well, changed the character of the lighthouses and their story in ways that weren't always good. My tale, called "Last Farewell," touches on that in subtle ways. It imagines what that transition might have been like for an old-timer who had served at lighthouses as a career.
By Elinor DeWire, 1992
"There ain't no need for me to go ashore, lad. Been out here as long as any man, prob'ly longer than you been on this earth. I don't aim to give up the watch yet."
The young Coast Guard lieutenant withdrew a copy of the orders from his pocket and handed them to the grizzled old lightkeeper. Petrel Rock was as dismal a place as he'd ever seen, all gray and mildewed and damp. Even the coffee the old man had made for him tasted like the sea. Kearns stood by the sink, cup in his hand, drinking the stuff out of kindness.
"Sorry, Mr. Jenkins, but orders are orders. This light is too dangerous and isolated. It's long overdue for automation. You should be happy you can leave it at last. Petty Officer Kearns will remain to get the beacon and fog signal ready for self-sufficient operation. Get your things and meet me at the launch."
The old man stood trembling, with the paper in his hand. His eyes filled, and he scratched nervously at a spot on his neck. Kearns, alone now with the lightkeeper, looked at the floor. It was a dreadful place, a prison, yet he thought he understood the old man's pain.
"Been here 43 years come September. Don't know as I could do no other job after all this time. Guess them letters from the district was true. They aim to take me off'n this rock."
Kearns fiddled with the light and fog sensors he was to install before morning. The tender was originally scheduled to dock for a few hours - long enough for the sensors to be hooked up and the old man removed - but an emergency call about a nomad buoy meant he would have to stay the night. The tender would return for him by noon the next day.
"I'd be glad to help you carry your stuff," Kearns offered.
The old man pulled out a crusty handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He folded the paper several times and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.
"Not much to carry, lad. A man learns to live lean on a lighthouse."
The old man disappeared into the bunkroom. Kearns watched him go, stiff-legged and hunched and beaten
by a piece of paper.
He went to the generator room and shut off the power, then carried the toolbox and sensors up the long staircase to the lantern. Despite the musty smell of the granite stones and the old man's grizzled appearance, the lantern was spotless. Everything was ready for the evening light-up. Not a fingerprint marred the brass or prisms of the antique Fresnel lens; the windows were polished inside and out.
Kearns admired the old man's tenacity and thought to himself that Petrel Light would never again receive such loving care. An automated light does not clean its own windows or polish the lens.
The wiring for the automatic devices was simple. The light sensor would be placed outside on the gallery to work like a streetlight. When twilight descended, it would trip the switch that turned on the beacon. At dawn, it would turn it off. A bulb changer, with five lOOO-watt bulbs, would rotate new bulbs into position when old ones burned out. The fog sensor would send a thin beam of light to a buoy a half-mile away. When the beam could not penetrate the air, the sensor would activate the foghorn.
"Ain't no electronic contraption gonna save somebody what needs help."
The old man had entered the lantern on cat's feet. Kearns jolted at the sound of his scratchy voice.
"No, Mr. Jenkins, it won't. That's one of the disadvantages of this system. But the advantage is we won't have to worry about keeping you warm and well and safe out here. It costs a lot to keep a keeper, you know."
The old man had changed into his dress uniform from his days in the old U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. He was among the few civilian lightkeepers who refused to join the Coast Guard when it had taken over lighthouses in 1939. Kearns noticed that every brass button on the blue wool jacket was shined to perfection. The coat hung limply from Mr. Jenkins shoulders, suggesting that he had once been a robust man.
Jenkins eyed the bulb changer suspiciously.
"They're gettin' rid of an old man who don't bend to the new rules. I 'member when keepin' a light was a callin'; not just anybody was put out here, least of all some wired-up gizmo with no brain, no feelin's. "
"Forty-three years is a good career, Mr. Jenkins. I know I'd be proud to go out with a record like yours.
No one's getting rid of you. It's just, well ... progress. Like automatic washing machines replacing the washboard."
Jenkins laughed and shoved his gnarled hands into his pockets. Wind rattled the lantern windows. "A lighthouse ain't a washing machine and ships ain't laundry.”
Kearns had to agree. His comparison had not been an effective one. He was racking his brain for another when footsteps sounded below. The lieutenant poked his head through the hatch, then climbed up. Three men inside the lantern made it crowded.
"Taking a final look over your old kingdom, Jenkins? It's a watery waste, a no-man's land. In a few weeks you'll not miss it at all. "
Kearns flashed the lieutenant a warning look. The old man would not tolerate derisive remarks about his lighthouse. It was enough that he had to leave; he didn't deserve to be insulted.
"We were just talking about Mr. Jenkins fine career, lieutenant. Forty-three flawless years of service. He wears the old Superintendent's Star, sir, from the Lighthouse Service days. Haven't seen one of those in years, I'll bet."
The lieutenant surveyed Jenkins uniform and nodded. Kearns could tell he had little appreciation for the award and even less an idea of its meaning.
"Yes, quite an accomplishment. I'd have that mounted on a plaque if I were you, Mr. Jenkins. Might be something your grandchildren would treasure. "
"Got no grandchildren," came Jenkins gruff reply. His eyes remained riveted on the gray expanse of water. "
"Oh. Yes. I forgot you're a bachelor. Well, that's all the more reason to head for shore. I'll wager some old sweetheart is waiting for you after all these years."
The lieutenant chuckled and pretended to punch Jenkins in the arm, softly. The old man never took his eyes off the sea. Kearns puckered his mouth and turned away, embarrassed. Jenkins deserved a far better sendoff than this. There was no sweetheart, no wife, no kids, no grandkids, no life ashore. There was only the lighthouse, and it was being taken from him.
"Well, let's not spend all day looking for flying fish," added the Lieutenant. "I've got a nomad buoy to find, Mr. Jenkins."
The old keeper swallowed and pursed his lips. Kearns thought for a moment he would refuse to budge, but he turned quietly and slipped down through the hatch without looking back. The lieutenant turned to follow, but Kearns motioned him to stay. When he was sure the old man was out of earshot, he spoke.
"Sir, could we at least observe some sort of little ceremony down below---have the men line up and salute the old guy? Say a few words? We're talking major separation here. He's been on this lighthouse 43 years. You can't just come out here and haul him away like a burned out bulb."
The lieutenant searched the horizon and shifted on his feet. Kearns saw that he was uncomfortable with the
"Look, sir. I'll do it. I'll give a little speech before he boards the tender. You present him with the ensign.
It's the least we can do."
It was obvious the officer was anxious to leave. Rounding up a maverick buoy was more important to him than seeing that an old lightkeeper was properly relieved.
"Okay, Kearns. You're the bleeding heart. But make it quick. That buoy is a criminal at large. We'll hear it from Admiral Cross if we don't find it by dark."
Jenkins was in the office off the kitchen when Kearns reached the base of the tower. He was writing in the logbook, a dingy, ink-stained record of his life's work at Petrel Rock. Kearns waited until the old man had laid down his pen.
"Perhaps the district will let you have a copy," Kearns said softly from the doorway.
The hint of a smile crossed Jenkins face. He closed the book and tenderly stroked its cover.
"It's who I talked to, ya know, 'cause there weren't nobody to converse with out here. Got me through some rough times---storms, sickness, days when the tender couldn't land .... time my brother died and I couldn't get ashore to his funeral. "
Kearns instinctively put a hand on the old man's shoulder. It was a fragile shoulder, thin and bony. "Your brother would have understood. He knew how critical your job was out here. "
The affirmation of his importance made Jenkins stand up straighter. He cleared his throat and patted the book gently.
"Well, that's behind me now. Won't be late for no more funerals, 'specially not my own."
They walked together through the lower rooms one last time, and Jenkins recalled the '38 hurricane, U-boat patrols off the lighthouse, the sinking of the Andrea Doria ---events Kearns could only read about in history books. At the door the old man paused a moment, as if he had something more to say. But then he was silent.
The door opened with a soft screech, and the bright light of the morning made the two men squint. The lieutenant stood on the steps outside the lighthouse.
The crew of the tender had formed two lines leading to the brow of the ship. They peered curiously at the old man in his ancient uniform. When Jenkins stepped down the granite stairs, they came sharply to attention.
Kearns straightened, glanced at the lieuteI1ant, and addressed the gathering.
"The crew of the tender Elmwood is honored and saddened to relieve Mr. Harold Jenkins, head keeper of Petrel Light, after 43 years of commendable duty. Mr. Jenkins has served longer and under more difficult circumstances than any of us in the Coast Guard will ever know. High-tech electronics now do the work that hands once did, but never with the same devotion, sacrifice, caring, and heart as Mr. Harold Jenkins. He has witnessed a great wave of progress during his career---oil lamps, gaslights, electricity, and now automation. We are honored to have served with him and honored to be present as he departs."
The old man swayed on his feet, overcome by the unexpected pomp. Kearns turned to the lieutenant and saluted.
"Sir, you have the honor of presenting Mr. Jenkins with the station ensign."
The lieutenant looked surprised for a moment, then ordered two men to retire the flag, a somewhat faded and ragged stars and stripes that Jenkins had raised and lowered over the station for longer than he remembered. The men carefully folded the ensign and brought it to the lieutenant with measured steps and crisp salutes.
Kearns feared the lieutenant might further embarrass the old man, but his words were well-chosen. It was obvious the ceremoniousness of the occasion had infected him.
"Keeper Jenkins, I am truly honored to present to you this ensign, which you have so dutifully flown over Petrel Rock for untold years. It is a small token that represents a great deed, that of the keeper who faithfully tends his light so that others might be guided by it. On behalf of the crew of the tender Elmwood and Vice Admiral Benjamin H. Cross of the United States Coast Guard, I extend to you thanks and God-speed."
The lieutenant saluted; the men saluted; Kearns saluted. And last, the aged lightkeeper lifted a shaking hand to his brow.
"Mr. Harold T. Jenkins departing Petrel Rock Light Station, sir!" Kearns shouted to the lieutenant.
At a nod from the lieutenant, the bo'sun's pipe cried a long, sad farewell over the waters. The only other sound was the sea splashing gently against the dock. Keeper Jenkins stepped down to the rows of men and paused, trembling. Kearns extended his arm to steady the old man. It was at that moment that he noticed Jenkins had shaved the stubble from his chin and put in his teeth.
He thought he might have to walk with him, so wobbly was his first step. But Jenkins recovered his balance, threw back his shoulders and raised his head. He squeezed Kearns arm in thanks and walked with proud steps between the men. As he reached the top of the brow he turned and saluted Kearns, then saluted his lighthouse and blew it a kiss, as if he were leaving behind a loved one.
The old man was standing at the stern clutching his flag when the tender pulled away. Kearns waved to him and thought how right it had been to do what he had done. Jenkins would, no doubt, receive awards from the district, but his proud farewell at the lighthouse, in uniform, would be cherished above all else.
The door screeched again softly as Kearns returned to the lighthouse. With luck, he'd have the automatic wiring done by mid-afternoon and could spend the remainder of the daylight beachcombing along the shores of the tiny island. He had brought a large can of chili and a loaf of bread for his evening meal, but he fancied digging up some clams to steam.
In the kitchen, he found the cupboards full of provisions. Jenkins had been serious about not making preparations to leave. Kearns resolved to pack up the food and see that it was sent to the old man. A container of fish chowder was in the refrigerator. It surely wouldn't ship well, and it smelled delicious. Kearns decided to eat an early lunch.
While the chowder warmed, he thought of the logbook. He would personally take it ashore and see that the old man got a copy. It would mean a lot. He went to the office to retrieve it. As expected, everything was in apple-pie order. Jenkins had made a final entry, noting the time he had extinguished the beacon that morning, the weather conditions, and a few comments about the arrival of the Elmwood.
As Kearns picked up the logbook, a small card slipped out and fell to the floor. It was yellowed with age.
On the front was a faded image of Christ standing in a cloud, arms open. Kearns thought he should put the card back in the logbook, but it appeared to be something personal. The old man would not want something like that in the logbook when it was turned over to the district.
Kearns opened the note carefully, uncomfortable about intruding. It contained a memorial to Mrs. Elizabeth Reese Jenkins who died on September 19, 1928. "God has given her eternal rest," it said.
"Must have been his mother," Kearns said to himself, closing the small card. He tucked it carefully back inside the logbook, then gently flipped through the pages in case there were other personal notes. Only one other item was found.
Tears welled in Kearns' eyes as he read it and realized what it meant. It, too, was a memorial card - one that promised "joy and eternal peace in heaven for little Mary Louise Jenkins, who died at birth, September 19, 1928."